Wednesday, August 22, 2007

pheasant fajitas

Growing up in the midwest with a Father Who Hunts meant that we had a deep freeze full of wild game not unlike other homes where the deep freeze contains whole chickens or sides of beef or convenience food from Schwan's. More often than not our grilled burgers were made from ground elk rather than ground beef. Pheasant became a substitute for chicken in dishes ranging from stir-fries to soups. It's not such an exotic or even special thing to eat game where game is plentiful.

As an adult who does her own grocery shopping, I've priced farm-raised pheasant. Suffice it to say, I'm hard pressed to pay over $20 for a three-pound bird. Every bird my father sends my way is a gift. That said, the birds tend to languish in the freezer. For a while in the early-nineties we made the pheasant-lentil soup from the Silver Palate Cookbook, but I've never really found a pheasant recipe I'd like to eat on a regular basis. Come to think of it, I don't really notice many to clip from the culinary magazines I read, nor do I see many recipes in the cookbooks I buy.

I'm not a fan of using pheasant as a substitute for chicken as it often becomes dry and tough quickly. Searches for pheasant recipes online tend to involve unhealthy amounts of bacon or (gasp) cream of mushroom soup, both treatments meant to give the meat fat where it has none. I'm also not crazy about roasting pheasant with fruit.

Recently, it was my pleasure to reconsider the pheasant in place of chicken or another red meat. My youngest brother made dinner for Hambone and Spice and knocked our socks off with pheasant fajitas. Because pheasant is so naturally lean, I didn't have much hope for the dish being anything other than a disaster (sorry Nik). But, we were pleasantly surprised that the pheasant yielded a somewhat rich and complex fajita.

Here is Nik's basic method:

After deftly boning two 3-pound pheasants (Nik labels his packages so he knows where he shot the birds; these came from Winner, SD) and cutting the meat into strips, Nik heated a glug or two of olive oil over medium heat. He sauted the meat very carefully, watching the heat so as not to cook to fast.

Surprisingly, the pheasant gave up quite a bit of liquid, which Nik retained. He seasoned the meat with cayenne, salt, and some green herbs (these are not your traditional fajitas). When the meat was just shy of cooked through, he turned off the heat and put a lid on the pan.

Because he had a large quantity of meat for a medium pan, he opted to fry the vegetables (assorted bell peppers and red onion from the St. Paul Farmers Market) in a separate pan, again in olive oil. When the vegetables were bright and glistening—not even five minutes—he threw them into the pan with the meat and added a little canned green chile for kick and sauce. We ate Nik's concoction with a sprinkle of Mexican "quesadilla" cheese, wrapped in flour tortillas (my preference over corn tortillas).

Friday, August 17, 2007

Local food writing round-up

Bored with going to the same old restaurants? From Formica to four-star, here's a foodie checklist. Book now. Many of the items on this list are already Hambone and Spice's "same old restaurants," but we've never been to the Tea House, Krua Thai or Pho Quan, and I'm pleased to add them to my personal list.

In the "who knew" category: When she's not running the 22-year-old Uptown Minneapolis restaurant that bears her name, Lucia Watson is, among other things, the "Taste Tempters" columnist for Brainerd-based In-Fisherman magazine, where her recipes have been a reader favorite for 17 years.

Dara Moskowitz visits Surly Brewing Company, the Brooklyn Center-based craft beer brewery. Hambone and I bought a four-pack of Furious and thought it was awful to drink, but made an incredible marinade for chicken (Steve Raichlen's Brazilian Beer Marinated Chicken).

We're off to Princeton, NJ, for a family visit. Back on Monday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Spicy Cauliflower Pasta—minus the cauliflower

Last night I had planned to make the spicy cauliflower-broccoli pasta from Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which I prefer without broccoli. We had a nice head of cauliflower from the St. Paul Farmers Market that I planned to use.

After I minced six cloves of garlic and six anchovy fillets, pitted and chopped one-third cup tiny nicoise olives, chopped a half-cup parsley leaves (also from the farmers market), and rinsed the last tablespoon of organic capers, I started to prep the cauliflower head. I was just getting into a groove cutting cauli cross-sections into 1/8-inch slices when I noticed the cauliflower was moldy throughout.

I tried to hide my disappointment, because this is one of my favorite ways to prepare cauliflower and because I hate throwing out food.

Hambone suggested a hot oil and garlic sauce for the penne, but as we stood staring at the mise en place*, it occured to us that we could use most of the ingredients for the pasta sauce. Who needs cauliflower?

I heated a couple tablespoons oil and added the minced garlic, anchovies, and a few (too many) generous pinches of red pepper flakes. As soon as the anchovies had dissolved, I added some pasta cooking water (about one-quarter cup) and one-half pound cooked penne, tossing to coat. We finished the pasta with a handful of parsley and a handful of homemade bread crumbs I keep in the freezer, though I think toasted chopped almonds would have been really nice.

(I nixed the olives and capers because I didn't want a briny sauce, but they'll make a great excuse for tapenade later this week.)

Accompanied by a buttery, chilled chardonnay, our pasta was fantastic—especially as we'd just had an hour bike ride with the boys, each of us pulling 45-50 pounds on a Burley Piccolo. We were ravenous. I can always count on Hambone to save the day with his quick thinking. Though he was never a Boy Scout, he has a certain Scouts in Action drive.

*Pardon the pretention, but I really was unusually organized with all the ingredients lined up near the stove in ramekins.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Menu for week of August 13

Monday: Judy Rodger's spicy cauliflower-broccoli pasta from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, green salad

Tuesday: grilled chicken breasts, chimichurri, locally grown green beans

Wednesday: grilled hamburgers (Buescher brothers' ground beef), basil pesto, zucchini (my mother's garden)

Thursday: Hambone, Alpha, and Beta fend for themselves while Spice noshes at book group

Friday—Sunday: Hambone, Spice, and boys enjoy NJ's bounty in Princeton

Saturday, August 11, 2007

With thanks to my mother: late summer gratin

I had the extreme privilege of growing up in a household with a mother who not only put nutritious, delicious home-cooked meals on the table seven days a week, but who also planted and maintained a very large vegetable garden. The lettuce, green beans, zucchini, carrots, beets, tomatoes, corn, ground cherries, herbs that Hambone and Spice seek out at the farmers market each summer weekend were but a stone’s throw from my childhood kitchen. My mother would have me—or one of my three siblings—dash out and pick vegetables as she was fixing dinner. She still keeps a garden, planting heirloom varieties of her favorite vegetables. Although we live 200 miles apart, she kindly shares her harvest with me when she can.

As the recent recipient of one of her many zucchini bumper crops, I’ve been working my way through easy preparations that mostly include zucchini in every one-dish meal (stir-fry, risotto, pasta sauce) that we make. Or we slice zucchini lengthwise or in quarter-inch-thick medallions, brush with olive oil, and sprinkle with s-and-p and dried green herbs before tossing on the grill, where the zucchini is allowed to reach a sultry caramelized finish.

Now that I’ve pulled most of my trump cards and still have plenty of zucchini to eat, I’m working my way through favorite preparations from my childhood, including a certain late summer gratin.

Even though our home is air-conditioned, I’m reluctant to turn on the oven during the heat wave we’re experiencing, but it’s worth it for this dish. My mother likely never made it the same way twice and certainly wasn’t operating from a recipe, but it’s a simple dish to prepare.

For this late summer gratin, I line a baking dish with alternating layers of thinly sliced vegetables, starting with tomatoes, then red onions, and zucchini until the dish is full. Occasionally a layer will receive a sprinkle of kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and herbes de Provence; then I’ll dose another layer with a bit of olive oil. The top is sprinkled liberally with grated cheese (gruyere is my favorite), then with bread crumbs, and it’s baked at 375 degrees F. for 30 to 40 minutes.

Many may recognize this dish as the tian Provencal, which has as many variations as any French regional food item, but typically consists of tomatoes, zucchini, onions, olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. I've seen many recipes that also include eggplant and anchovies.

I love the way the vegetables still hold their form when cooked and how they take on the fruity flavor of olive oil and the savory taste of cheese. I also appreciate the flexibility of the dish—you can use any dried or fresh green herb, as well as any cheese that melts well. When Hambone was riding RAGBRAI, I made this gratin with the intention of taking the leftovers to lunch, but I ate the whole thing, remorselessly, in one sitting.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Mission accomplished

After a day and a half of simultaneously speed-dialing on a cell phone and on my work land line, I finally got through the endless string of busy signals to reach a live body at The French Laundry. Getting that far is just the half of it. Then, you have to be willing to face outright rejection because all the tables are booked for the evening(s) on which you'd like to have dinner, oh, two months from now. Or, you'll be offered a table at lunch: "We have a table at eleven and at eleven-thirty." As if you'd settle for lunch to celebrate your milestone birthday.

Persistance with the humorless reservationist—Iris—yielded at 5:30 p.m. reservation on October 5, 2007.

A debt of gratitude to you Iris!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Reservation update, continued

I'm heading into the fourth hour of speed-dialing The French Laundry for a reservation, using land line and cell phone simultaneously.

Stop laughing at me—Megnut claims it worked for her.

Reservation update

I have been speed-dialing for a half-hour, and the line has been busy the entire time. In between dials, I have attempted making a reservation online for each of the nights we'll be in Northern California—and for any hour, as early at 5:30 p.m.

Can you sense my anxiousness?

T minus seven minutes—and counting

Today is the day on which I am allowed to make a reservation for my October birthday meal at the French Laundry. According to the restaurant's website, you can make a reservation no earlier than two months to the date you wish to dine, which in my case was August 6. When I phoned on August 6, a message informed me that the French Laundry was observing their annual summer vacation, which is very civilized and I applaud them for being so French.

Wish me luck, I'm calling now...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lucky 13

Over the weekend, Hambone and Spice celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary—that would be the lace wedding anniversary if you follow the traditional gift table, or leather or fur if you’re on the modern track. Long ago Hambone and I decided to relieve the pressure of another gift-giving occasion by opting not to buy each other presents for our anniversary. Instead, we treat ourselves to a lovely meal in a restaurant, where we gaze into each others’ eyes. Just as we did in 1994 while on our honeymoon in Bariloche, Argentina.

While we love to do a little reminiscing, we’re also very cognizant of enjoying the moment, which found us celebrating at a two-top in the midst of a bustling, cozy restaurant—Muffuletta’s in the Park.

Hambone and I had eaten at Muffuletta’s over ten years ago. I’m remembering that we had an okay meal, but nothing about it made us want to return. In fact, until I received some reports from friends who’d eaten there within the past year, I hadn’t realized Muffuletta’s was still in business. It’s amazing how a new chef can inject just the right energy to transform a place. In addition to the word of mouth, a little research turned up solid accolades for chef J.D. Fratzke’s local- and seasonal-driven menu.

I always enjoy an opportunity to visit St. Anthony Park, the wooded St. Paul neighborhood where Muffuletta’s is located. The little shopping area has an upscale clothing store, a Carnegie library in a spectacular brick building, a hardware store, a Post Office branch, a wine shop, a Finnish bakery, and an independent bookstore. So, when my mother and sister were visiting in June, we headed over (actually due north of my St. Paul neighborhood) for lunch. My meal was fantastic, and I couldn’t wait to return with Hambone.

After Hambone and I were seated, we were treated to a basket of house-made flatbreads accompanied by a garlic puree. We also were given an amuse-bouche of basmati rice on flatbread—a little odd, basically a pile of rice on a cracker, but tasty.

The menu is written with great care, describing not just the food preparation, but sources for raw ingredients—farms and fields and streams. An obvious dedication to local and seasonal foods goes beyond what I’m accustomed to seeing on menus around town, and it made me very happy.

Here is a sample from the August menu:

Farmer’s Markets, Ballparks and Beer—Though July and August in Minnesota tend to take us on a roller coaster ride of wet blanket heat and humidity, sudden severe downpours and everything in between, Muffuletta’s crew rejoices as the season kicks in to high gear and spills a cornucopia of ingredients grown by our friends in the sustainable agriculture community.

Vendors like Hidden Streams Farms, the Southeast Minnesota Food Network, Tim Fischer and Thousand Hills Cattle Company supply us with the best fresh and locally produced ingredients that will help us sing the praises of our great state’s outdoor culture. Influenced by our love for everything from Boundary Waters canoe fishing and Metro Area Farmer’s Markets to softball tournament tailgating outside of Pipestone, the fruits, vegetables and proteins supplied us by the aforementioned producers will take top billing and help us celebrate the good life we lead in L’Etoile du Nord.

Our dinner was superb. We shared a caprese salad (thick slice of a Minnesota-grown tomato topped by a thick slice of fresh mozzerella and adorned with a sprinkle of rose salt and a swipe of a balsamic reduction) while we read the menu.

Here's what we ate:

Spice started with salmon rillettes (wine-poached Scottish salmon and Nova Scotia smoked salmon folded into creme fraiche and aioli, served with toasted crostade and tossed greens)

Hambone started with cornmeal-crusted calamari with preserved-lemon aioli

Spice's main: gnocchi with roasted tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and a pistachio-almond pesto

Hambone's main: fresh tagliatelle with preserved lemons, green olives, and seared ahi tuna.

Wine: Croix du Verre, Crozes Hermitage, 2001 (redolent of black currant, dark berries, and a bit of spice)

I have two tiny quibbles. First, portions are too big. Neither of us was able to finish our main course, and we had to pass on dessert. Which is just wrong. Last, the wine list had far too many familiar bottles, which made the mark-up hard to take. That valpolicella on the wine menu for $36 costs $11 at my local wine shop. It’s a good wine, but we also drink it regularly when we grill burgers. When I’m at a restaurant, I want to stretch my palate, trying new wines or drinking something special that I can’t get at my wine shop.

Items on the menu remain—a German-style sausage platter and beer cheese soup caught our attention, so we’ll be back. I look forward to seeing the kitchen’s fall offerings!

Friday, August 03, 2007

Easy Friday Nights

For the past few months, Hambone and I have chosen to inaugurate the weekend with Friday night cocktails, which has become a very civilized way to wind up the work week. Beyond the beverage at hand, we try to pull together a substantial nibble that we inevitably call supper. Once we start to sink into the cushions of our porch furniture, drink in hand, it's a very slippery slope to complete relaxation. And after that, who needs a proper meal?

Tonight we celebrated the beginning of tomato season by chopping up our farmers market haul, which we then drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with kosher salt, and mixed with minced garlic and basil chiffonade. While this mixture came together at room temperature for a bit, Hambone whipped up some Beefeater gin and tonics. We cranked up the Budos Band; took our bruschetta topping, a goat cheese crottin, and our cocktails out to our patio; and offered up a toast to many more gorgeous August evenings.